From the Editor

Right whales that gather in the region are critically endangered; the cod for which the Cape is named are all but gone. And yet the rebounding shark and seal populations are rare success stories. They should be cause for celebration, not concern.

In 2008, a woman was kayaking near Santa Catalina Island, thirty miles off the coast of Southern California, when she was bumped from below and thrown ten feet in the air. She landed upright, on top of a sixteen-foot white shark. “It looked like she was walking on water,” a spectator recounted on a Discovery Channel Shark Week program. As the shark headed out to deeper water, the woman jumped off and swam furiously to a nearby fishing boat. She survived without injuries, and with a harrowing story to tell.

Not long after, I also found myself in a kayak in open water off Catalina, paddling faster than I thought possible as the memory of that broadcast remained lodged in my brain. I had come to visit my sister, who had moved to the island to work as a marine biologist. Sitting atop that kayak, I was nervous as hell and not afraid to admit it. But my sister, who qualifies as an expert in these sort of things, insisted the woman had been foolish to kayak off the remote side of Catalina – an area known for shark activity – in water that had been baited with chum for a fishing competition. The woman should have expected to find herself standing atop a shark, she implied. Where we were going, she promised, was safe.

Over the next week, buoyed by that act of derring-do and an unbroken survival streak, I continued to explore my sister’s new home. I watched dolphins frolic in the harbor and seals and seal lions haul themselves on to boats. I idled in a dinghy near a surfacing whale. I swam, intentionally, in a cove with horn sharks, a local species about four feet in length with flat, molar-like teeth they use to crush bivalves.

I basked in the richness of the Pacific and returned to the Vineyard concerned. Where were our sharks and dolphins and whales? It had been years since I had seen a seal bobbing along our coast. Then, slowly, the tide began to turn. The next year a few white sharks were spotted around the Cape and Islands, followed by a few more, and a few more. By the mid-2010s, experts labeled Cape Cod a new white shark hotspot.

None of this happened by accident, or overnight. As Brooke Kushwaha explains in her excellent story on page 36, the uptick is a result of the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, which made it illegal to kill seals – a primary food source for white sharks – and restored their population from the brink. Today, seals congregate in large numbers on Muskeget Island, Noman’s Land, and the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge off Chatham. It’s this preference for empty shorelines that keeps seal, and therefore shark, sightings down on the Vineyard. Nonetheless, sightings are increasing along our South Shore, where sharks pass by en route to Cape Cod. Last year, South Beach closed an unprecedented eight times due to a suspected fin spotted close to shore.

Not everyone is happy about this, and I get it: we’ve all seen Jaws; we’ve all spent time on what was its set. We’re conditioned to replay those harrowing Shark Week tales in our mind. Still, I see the surge in local shark populations as cause for celebration, not concern. Our oceans are in trouble. Right whales that gather in the region are critically endangered; the cod for which the Cape is named are all but gone. One recent report predicted that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.

The rebounding shark and seal populations are rare success stories. They’re proof that if we set our minds and policies to repairing major ills, we can make a difference. But change takes time, and time is running out.

As are the number of beach days this summer. So after you write a check to your favorite cause, get out there and enjoy the ocean while you can. The odds of a shark attack are exceedingly small. Still, if the sightings at South Beach have you shook, might I suggest any of the fine beaches on our North Shore?